Katherine Davidson is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology. Many, many thanks to Tina Nichol for the conversation which led to this blog topic.

I have been wrapping up my doctoral fieldwork over the last few months, where I am exploring the meaning that understudied collections have for First Nations and Metis in Ontario. A fascinating question keeps coming up in discussions with participants and various stakeholders:

“Those people [who collect artifacts], what makes them want to keep it so bad? It’s not mine to keep, so what attracts people to that kind of treasure? Why are people obsessed with these trinkets?”

This feeling that artifacts don’t belong to us individually is not a novel concept; heritage professionals generally understand that publicly-held collections are kept for Posterity (the people of the future). The above quote came from one of the workshops I held for my research, and is an interesting question about concepts of ownership of artifacts among descendant populations – I hope to explore that more. But the individuals who possess collections – especially ones that belong with a local museum – skirt these commonly-held understandings of importance for the wider community. Why?

Romain Huneau, via unsplash

In a recent interview on the Comics and Crypto Podcast, licensing mogul Alfred Kahn stated that status, peer pressure and scarcity are the main driving psychological factors behind collecting. He suggested that the current boom in Pokémon collecting, the Cabbage Patch Kids craze in the 1980s, and even the popularity of NFTs and other blockchain-based exchange methods also fell under the similar ethos of collecting.

In our chapter on taste formation and performance in the online human remains trade (Davidson et al. 2021), we discussed the idea of Veblen goods and the perceived conspicuous consumption of Veblen goods creating (for some people) an attraction to collecting human remains. Because we understand, from a heritage perspective, that these objects are unique and have individual stories to tell, we treat them as having a “one of a kind” story to tell (Davidson et al. 2021: 35). However, that does not translate into any kind of monetary value (nor should it, because that is a gross violation of ethical practices).

Similarly, considering the relative frequency of common artifact types in museum collections, the actual rarity of artifacts would be called into question. The average collector may not understand – contrary to what they may have learned from Antiques Roadshow – that the object they took is more valuable left where they found it, especially if they can take a geolocated photo. (It follows that museum collections may be seen as a kind of “war chest” owned by colonial governments, but that is a discussion for another time).

regularguy.eth via unsplash

In our present capitalistic society, those motivating factors of status, peer pressure and scarcity motivate collectors to seek (increasingly) rare objects in the hope or belief that it will bring them status. There is also the consideration that as archaeological sites are destroyed, or as artifacts are taken out of “circulation” (through consumption or “terminal commoditization” into institutional collections), artifacts are presumed to become “rarer” through time (Appadurai 1986). As I demonstrated in my 2019 MA thesis (Davidson 2019), surface collections and sites damaged by erosion can still produce valuable archaeological information; therefore I choose to believe that artifacts do not become more rare over time. With those factors in mind, returning to the initial question of why, my answer at this stage would be a lack of understanding of both cultural and heritage industry contexts, or of the actual value of artifacts – in fact, more symbolic or cultural than monetary.


Appadurai, Arjun. 2013. The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge University Press. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/heb.32141.

Davidson, Katherine Sarah. 2019. “Washeo Whiskiheggan: Examining the Hudson’s Bay Company Fur Trade Post in Fort Severn, Ontario through Archaeological Analysis and Community Engagement.” University of New Brunswick. https://unbscholar.lib.unb.ca/islandora/object/unbscholar%3A9804/.

Davidson, Katherine, Shawn Graham, and Damien Huffer. 2021. “Exploring Taste Formation and Performance in the Illicit Trade of Human Remains on Instagram.” In Crime and Art: Sociological and Criminological Perspectives of Crimes in the Art World, edited by Naomi Oosterman and Donna Yates, 29–44. Studies in Art, Heritage, Law and the Market. Cham: Springer International Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-84856-9_3.